Political Responsibility and the Public Loss of Confidence in the Government


In this column last November, I noted the utter loss of public confidence in the government, citing the results of a poll conducted by the Yomiuri Shimbun on September 3–4, just after Noda Yoshihiko became prime minister. Asked to rate the response of various organs and groups to the March 2011 Great East Japan Earthquake, only 6% gave the government a positive assessment. The National Diet’s positive rating was a mere 3%. I do not know if similar surveys have been conducted more recently, but a poll conducted by the Yomiuri on February 10–12 suggests that the popularity of the government and both of the two main political parties is at rock bottom. Approval for the Noda administration was just 30%, with 57% disapproving of the government’s performance. Support for the ruling Democratic Party of Japan was a meager 16%, the lowest figure since the DPJ took power in September 2009. But things were not much better for the Liberal Democratic Party, the top opposition force, which had a similarly low support rating of 17%. A 54% majority supported no party at all. Asked what sort of political framework they would like to see, 53% said they hoped for a new framework based on a regrouping of political forces, and 23% favored a grand coalition of the DPJ and LDP. Just 9% wanted an LDP-led framework, and only 5% one led by the DPJ, as at present.

The “Revolt of the Regions” and Moves to Form New Parties

I mention this lack of popular trust in national government and politics by way of background to the recent emergence of a “revolt of the regions.” The most prominent representative of this development is Hashimoto Tōru, the 42-year-old mayor of Osaka. Hashimoto stepped down as governor of Osaka Prefecture to run for mayor of the city last November, and won by a large margin over the incumbent, Hiramatsu Kunio, who was endorsed by the DPJ, the LDP, and the Japan Communist Party. This January he set up a new political academy, the Ishin Seiji-juku (Restoration Politics Academy), which aims to field 300 candidates and win 200 seats in the next election for the House of Representatives. More than 2,750 people applied to join the new academy by the February 10 deadline. It is well known that Hashimoto wants to merge the city of Osaka with Osaka Prefecture to form a metropolis (to) along the lines of the one in Tokyo. He also supports the idea of grouping the existing 47 prefectures into a dozen or so larger units ( and shū), and abolishing the local allocation tax system (the current system of distributing revenues from Tokyo to local governments), but it is not yet clear what his priorities are for government at the national level or how he proposes to tackle them. The Ōsaka Ishin no Kai (Osaka Restoration Association, the local political party that Hashimoto founded in 2010 and that serves as the parent organization for the Ishin Seiji-juku) recently published an eight-point policy platform, but this amounts to little more than a list of aspirations.

The “revolt of the regions” is not limited to Osaka. Aichi Prefecture Governor Ōmura Hideaki (age 51) and Nagoya Mayor Kawamura Takashi (63) are also aiming to launch groups to contest the next lower house election. Shiga Prefecture Governor Kada Yukiko (61) has set up her own “juku” and announced that she will team up with Hashimoto in local elections. And Tokyo Governor Ishihara Shintarō (79) has agreed with Kamei Shizuka (75), leader of the People’s New Party, and Hiranuma Takeo (72), head of the Sunrise Party of Japan, to form a new party by the end of March. Those involved are a disparate collection of individuals from different generations and with different political agendas. Even so, these moves clearly reflect deep-seated public disappointment and frustration with the state of national politics.

The revolt of the regions and the formation of new national political groupings are important developments for Japanese politics. But they will not bring about an immediate restoration of popular confidence in the political system. The only way to restore confidence is for the government to produce results. Prime Minister Noda has made decisions when they have been required of him, such as on Japan’s participation in the Trans-Pacific Partnership talks, establishing of the Reconstruction Agency, and approving draft legislation for the comprehensive reform of taxes and social security. Unfortunately, however, some of the decisions taken by members of his government suggest a degree of confusion between political leadership and the expression of what his predecessor, Kan Naoto, called “personal ideas.”

The Meaning of Political Responsibility

One example of this confusion can be seen in the way the government has handled procedures for reactivating nuclear power plants temporarily shut down for regular maintenance. On February 17 the cabinet approved a document addressed to the National Diet declaring that the views of local government leaders and assemblies will be used as an important factor in assessing whether local opinion is in favor of reactivating a plant. This follows a statement that Prime Minister Noda made at a session of the House of Representatives last September, in which he declared that the reactivation of idled plants would be conducted on the basis of an overall judgment at the political level, including consideration of whether the understanding of local communities and the trust of the general public had been achieved.

This position effectively leaves the decisions up to local government executives and assemblies. But prefectural governments have neither the organization nor the capability to determine the safety of nuclear power plants. Requiring prefectural governors to decide whether local understanding and public trust have been achieved ensures that they will have no way of reaching responsible decisions. The results are already clear. Reactivation of reactors after their routine inspections has been postponed; as of last December only 15% of the existing reactors were in operation, and all of those still running will be idled within the next few months. The bill for this will be extremely expensive. Switching completely from nuclear to thermal power generation will increase the nation’s fuel bill by ¥2 trillion–¥3 trillion a year. Japan’s trade balance already fell into deficit last year, and the hollowing out of the industrial base continues unabated.

According to an article in the Asahi Shimbun on January 10, Minister of Economy, Trade, and Industry Edano Yukio believes that it will be possible to do without nuclear energy if we are willing to put up with slow economic growth. But look at Japan’s real growth rate over the past five years: 2.36% in 2007, –1.17% in 2008, –6.28% in 2009, 3.96% in 2010, and –0.47% (preliminary estimate) in 2011. The Japanese economy has actually contracted over this period. What does the minister mean when he refers to “slow growth” in this context? Does he mean that we should accept negative growth rates? If so, who is going to pay the social price? And is it really a good idea in any case to mix up medium- and long-term energy policy with the issue of reactivating idled reactors in this way? It will be politically impossible to build new nuclear power plants in Japan for at least the next 20–30 years. In light of this, it seems reasonable to take the time to consider energy policy for this extended period, taking note of such developments as the shale gas revolution and technological innovations in the use of renewable energy sources. In the meantime, the government should decide on the reactivation of idled reactors without delay. Leaving the decisions effectively in the hands of prefectural governors and assemblies is nothing but an abdication of responsibility.

Another problematic matter concerns the new set of standards issued by the Ministry of Health, Labor, and Welfare, which sharply reduces the acceptable levels of cesium in food products. The ministry set the level for milk and baby food at half that allowed for regular food products, apparently out of consideration for the susceptibility of infants and small children to the effects of radiation. According to an article in the Yomiuri Shimbun on February 17, this was driven by the determination of the MHLW’s head, Minister Komiyama Yōko, to apply strict standards to baby food in order to “create greater peace of mind.” Needless to say, peace of mind is not the same as safety. Safety can be assessed scientifically, but peace of mind is a matter of individual sentiment. It is easy to stress peace of mind, but achieving it comes at a cost. Who is going to pay this cost? If the minister’s call to “create greater peace of mind” means introducing standards much stricter than anything required by a scientific assessment of safety, she owes us an explanation as to why this standard was adopted, what its basis is, how much it will cost, and who is going to pay. That is what political responsibility entails.

Shiraishi Takashi Noda Yoshihiko energy policy Hashimoto Toru Osaka Restoration Association approval rate Ishin local allocation tax Ōmura Hideaki Kawamura Takashi Kada Yukiko Ishihara Shintarō Kamei Shizuka Hiranuma Takeo Reconstruction Agency nuclear power plant Edano Yukio Komiyama Yōko cesium food safety